by Alex Gatenby, The Telegraph, November 14, 2018
Home to the “big five” – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo – Africa is synonymous with land mammals. But the continent is also endowed with some of the planet’s most spectacular marine life.
Little-visited Mozambique is the perfect place to discover it. The country has 1,500 miles of spectacular coastline dotted with enviable dive spots and the little southeastern town of Tofo, home to a handful of dive centres and a golden beach, is where to go for underwater giants: mantas, whales and whale sharks.
My interest in Mozambique was piqued when I chanced upon “Andrea, Queen of the Mantas”, a documentary about renowned marine biologist Dr Andrea Marshall’s discovery that Mozambique was home to marine animals no one had ever seen. The oceanic manta, a hitherto unknown species, has a wingspan of up to seven metres and are found cruising the coastline of Mozambique in search of ‘cleaning stations’: coral reefs where smaller fish remove parasites from their streamlined bodies. Watching them glide elegantly through the water is spellbinding. During her PHD studies Andrea discovered that Tofo Beach was the largest known aggregation site for mantas in the world.
“It’s really unique in terms of the biodiversity that we get here. It kind of straddles the zone between temperate and tropical,” Andrea explains. “We have the perfect storm in terms of oceanography, there’s so much food along this coastline that it just has more megafauna species (large animals) than I’ve seen anywhere in the world.”
This is borne out by our sightings over the following days. My pre-dive breakfast sees me dropping my cereal as I watch awestruck, as humpback whales playfully breach in front of me. These gentle giants travel to the warmth of the Indian Ocean to mate and calf, specifically between July and October. All our dives are accompanied by whale-song - an experience so mesmerising, it’s difficult to describe.
For non-divers, ocean safaris provide the opportunity to spot and snorkel not only with dolphins but with the largest fish of all, the whale shark. Harmless to humans but massive in size (up to 18 metres), wide-mouthed and magnificent, each has a unique display of white spots blanketing its long, flat body.
Tofo’s night-time scene resides in the market. Despite its remoteness dining options are plentiful; from Mozambican delicacy ‘matapa’, a mild dish made up of cassava leaves cooked with garlic, onion and coconut milk, to up-market Japanese.
Three hundred kilometres north of Tofo, the larger town of Vilanculos is a versatile base from which to explore the picturesque Bazaruto Archipelago as well as local villages of the Vilankulo District. This place is not just for divers, though the crystal waters, sharks, turtles and mobula rays swarming around the untouched corals of ‘Two Mile Reef’ are not to be missed.
For a truly unique experience try the Mozambique Horse Safari. Founders Pat and Mandy Retzlaff have been leading treks since 2006, having rescued 104 horses from Zimbabwe’s land invasions. The remoteness of their stables tucked away amongst local villages allows for strikingly beautiful riding along a deserted beach. We walk, trot and canter through the water and mangroves before being greeted by a group of excited local children who present us with homemade matapa, fresh crab and a singing performance.
If a dhow trip is too tame for you, these extraordinary waters are perfect for kite-surfing; try heading to Kite School Mozambique in the afternoon, where you can learn to navigate between the bobbing boats.
The tide pattern of Vilanculos is a captivating spectacle, as the sea pushes out mid-morning to reveal a white span of boats resting in the sand. As I walk along the beach one evening, I see fishermen selling their catch to a busy crowd and a woman chopping up an eagle-eyed stingray, another critically endangered species that Andrea discovered. A poignant reflection of the reality of tourism in such a remote location.
Despite having some of the highest recorded numbers of rare species, Mozambique has seen a corresponding rapid rate of decline. With the demand for fish increasing, the use of gill-netting results in more rare animals becoming entangled and dying. Happily, the local community are being educated thanks to organisations like the Marine Megafauna Foundation, dive centres and eco-resorts investing in marine education for locals, teaching them sustainable fishing methods and about the wonders of the waters that surround them.
Everywhere I go in Mozambique, this sense of cooperation is palpable. Numerous foreign enterprises recount how when cyclones devastated the country in 2017, it was the local communities who came forward in a heroic effort to help rebuild what was lost.
As a diver visiting the country, it is essential to contribute in a sustainable way, something Andrea’s charity Marine Megafauna Foundation aims to help achieve. Aside from supporting eco-lodges, conservation conscious dive-centres and donating to fund community marine-life education, we can also help scientifically.
“We have developed ways for normal divers to get involved,” Andrea says of her research team. “If you have a camera, take a photo of a turtle, a whale, a whale shark or a manta, you can upload them now to international databases which are actually helping researchers collect more data.”
Megafauna species have unique identification patterns, so these contributions are vital. For a truly personal experience, you can book onto Citizen Science Expeditions to dive with Andrea and her team; to learn research techniques, help collect data and hear nightly talks from marine conservation experts.
Even at Mozambique’s growing number of luxury hotels there is an emphasis on ethical concerns, as seen across the waters from Vilanculos on Benguerra Island. Engulfed by blue waters speckled with coral reefs, it is 55 square kilometers of heaven.
Top-end hotel Azura Retreats offers a tailor-made luxury exploration of this barely touched area including dives from a 5* PADI centre, and accommodation in beautiful villas. Yet during my stay I am struck by its philanthropic efforts. Through their charity Rainbow Fund they have built a local school, sponsored the education of around 400 local youngsters, and created a number of impactful environmental protection initiatives.
As I leave Mozambique I reflect on why it has become my favourite dive location. The unique quality of the marine life on show makes it exceptional, but, in a fast-moving world of overtourism, it is also uncommon to see such respect for the environment and an underlying ethos of giving back to the local community. Lesser-known it may be, but the country deserves a place on every diver’s wishlist.
How to get there
There are no direct flights to Mozambique, but flying to Johannesburg gives you great access to multiple destinations in the country. Virgin fly direct from Heathrow twice a day from £445 return. From there head onto a smaller flight to Vilankulo, Inhambane or Maputo via South African Airlines. Benguerra Island is reached by helicopter via Vilanculos Airport through pre-arranged flights with Azura Retreats.
Where to stay
Secluded beachside cottage Lalaland, which can be booked on Airbnb, is run by wonderful, warm hosts and costs just £40 a night. Out of town eco-lodge Mango Beach is a great alternative, with a tranquil setting, just six cabanas and fabulous food. Rooms start at £71 per cabana with a shared bathroom.
Casa Babi is a great option for diving, with the Odyssea dive centre based on site. It has four boutique rooms, a pool, small restaurant and direct access to a stunning beach. Prices start at £180 (in 2019) for a double rooml; dive and stay packages available.
For the ultimate luxury experience try Azura Retreats. All-inclusive packages offer accommodation in one of 20 private villas, stunning food, a private pool and a host for the duration of your stay as well as a tailor-made itinerary every day. Their Presidential Villa is regularly described as the best room in the Indian Ocean. Prices start from £527 per person sharing per night for stays in 2018, and £543 come the new year.
Who to dive with
Tofo Scuba is Tofo’s original dive company and their local instructor Adamo knows the waters like no one else. Prices start from £35 per dive.
Odyssea is headed up by cheeky instructor Hugo; there’s never a dull moment on the boat and you are given ample opportunity between dives to spot the famous but shy resident dugong Christina. Prices start at £90 for a dive, day out on the dunes, and picnic lunch.
Where to eat
The only vegetarian/vegan restaurant around, Happi is based at Liquid Divers. It has a daily changing menu, using local, seasonal fresh ingredients. For a relaxing evening with fantastic food that caters for all, walk down the beach to eco-resort Mango Beach. The sunset view from its secluded bar area is not to be missed and aside from the extensive and varied menu, the hospitality is unrivalled.
Casa Babi offers some really innovative dishes, all beautifully presented. There’s a new menu every day and chef Mariam cooks everything to order, for a very reasonable price. It’s only available for those staying at the hotel, however. For a more traditional experience, head around the corner to Zita’s for some home-made Mozambican dishes.